Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Speaking of Science: Consider the octopus

Speaking of Science
Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino on Science

Deep-sea octopuses inexplicably cluster in warm water two miles below the ocean surface. (Phil Torres and Geoff Wheat)

No parent on Earth is as committed as a mother octopus. She has only one chance to reproduce, so she gives her offspring everything she has.

From the moment she finds a den and lays her eggs, she stops swimming, eating and caring for herself. Her only duty is to keep her eggs safe and aerated while the embryos develop.

Her skin turns gray, her body consumes itself, and by the time her chicks hatch — a process that could take as long as 4½ years — she has wasted away. Typically, she dies as soon as her babies are born.

As if that were not harrowing enough, researchers diving two miles into the ocean off the coast of Costa Rica just discovered a group of up to 100 deep-sea octopus moms braving hot, low-oxygen waters gushing from cracks in an underwater volcano. Each of the pink, dinner-plate-size animals showed evidence of severe stress. And all seemed to be protecting a clutch of eggs — though none had any sign of a developing embryo.

"When I first saw the photos, I was like: 'No, they shouldn't be there! Not that deep and not that many of them,' " Janet Voight, an associate curator of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago and a co-author of a new study about the find, said in a news release.

Hanging around in warm water like this is "suicide," the scientists said; deep-sea octopuses are adapted to extreme, unchanging cold.

Voight and her colleagues can only guess at what might have drawn the octopuses to those perilous waters. They think there must be other hollow areas in the rocks where the water is cooler and more oxygenated — a perfect hiding spot for a mother and her eggs.

The lucky mothers that occupy those hollows "are analogous to the boomers who have all the good jobs, while the millennials wait, seeking just one little piece of the cool rock," Voight said.

Reading this study, I was struck by the resilience of these animals — the way they endure near-toxic conditions just to give their young a chance at life. It reminded me of a piece I wrote a few months ago about deep-sea skates that use hydrothermal vents to incubate their eggs.

In that case, the warm water was beneficial, not hazardous. But the takeaway was the same: Scientists like to say that we know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the moon, yet every time we venture into this dark and mysterious environment, we find something complex, curious and utterly new. I wonder what other remarkable creatures might hide down there.

So does Voight.

"Never would I have anticipated such a dense cluster of these animals at 3,000 meters depth, and we argue that the numbers of octopuses we see are simply the surplus population," she said. "What else is down there that we can't even imagine? I want to find out."

— Sarah

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